The film opens with archival footage of police raiding gay bars and arresting patrons during the 1950s and 1960s, followed by Dianne Feinstein’s November 27, 1978, announcement to the press that Milk and Moscone had been assassinated. Milk (Sean Penn) is seen recording his will throughout the film, nine days (November 18, 1978) before the assassinations.
The film then flashes back to New York City in 1970, the eve of Milk’s 40th birthday and his first meeting with his much younger lover, Scott Smith (James Franco). Unsatisfied with his life and in need of a change, Milk and Smith decide to move to San Francisco in the hope of finding larger acceptance of their relationship. They open Castro Camera in the heart of Eureka Valley, a working-class neighborhood in the process of evolving into a predominantly gay neighborhood known as The Castro.
Frustrated by the opposition they encounter in the once Irish-Catholic neighborhood, Milk utilizes his background as a businessman to become a gay activist, eventually becoming a mentor for Cleve Jones (Emile Hirsch). Early on, Smith serves as Milk’s campaign manager, but he grows frustrated with Milk’s devotion to politics, and he leaves him.
Milk later meets Jack Lira (Diego Luna), a sweet-natured but unbalanced young man. As with Smith, Lira cannot tolerate Milk’s devotion to political activism, and eventually hangs himself. Milk clashes with the local gay establishment which he feels to be too cautious.
Van Sant has fashioned a film that is accessible to all, while approaching his subject with sharp focus and a singleness of purpose that is at once definitive and topical. A stunning achievement, MILK manages to make its point without ever being preachy or trite, while remaining as true to the facts as any film bio could ever hope to be.
Character to watch: Sean Penn as Harvey Milk.
Journal your answers to the following questions after you watch the movie.
- How does this particular character’s journey compare with yours?
- Did the character develop certain characteristics during the movie that you have or that you would like to have? If so, what are those characteristics?
- What obstacles did this character face? What was his or her biggest challenge?
- What would you have done differently if you had been in the same position as the character?
- Is this character the type of person you would be friends with? Why or why not?